KUALA LUMPUR: North Korea and South Korea have been drawn together in an Asian qualifying group as the road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar became clearer on Wednesday.
The Korean neighbors will play each other home and away in the next year in the five-nation Group ‘H’ that includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.
In 2008, North Korea twice played home World Cup qualifiers against South Korea in China because it refused to raise its opponents’ flag or play their anthem in Pyongyang, as FIFA rules required.
Wednesday’s draw involving 40 national teams was sure to test some political sensitivities, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen were also put in the same group.
A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen’s government has been at war with rebel Houthis that has killed tens of thousands of people since 2015.
It seems unlikely Yemen can host the Saudis and three other opponents on home soil. For the 2018 World Cup qualifying programme, Yemen played home games in Doha, Qatar, for security reasons.
The Saudis, which played at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, are top-seeded in Group ‘D’ that also has Uzbekistan, Palestine and Singapore.
The eight five-team groups play from September through June. Group winners and the four best runners-up advance to another group stage, played from September 2020 to October 2021. Those 12 teams also qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup.
Four Asian teams will qualify directly for the 32-team World Cup. A fifth nation can advance to Qatar in an intercontinental playoff round in March 2022.
Top-ranked Iran who have qualified for each of the last two World Cups and at five in total, were drawn with neighbouring Iraq, plus Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia, in Group ‘C’.
United Arab Emirates are top-seeded in a Group ‘G’ loaded with Southeast Asian derbies, involving Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
There was growing laughter in the draw room at Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur as balls drawn by Australia great Tim Cahill continued to join the regional neighbours together.
Australia, who play in the Asian region, will play Jordan, Taiwan, Kuwait and Nepal in Group ‘B’.
World Cup hosts Qatar will also play take part, despite gaining a place at the finals as hosts, as the tournament also doubles as the qualifying rounds for the 2023 Asian Cup, when they will defend the continental title in China. The Gulf state will take on Bangladesh, Oman, India and Afghanistan in Group ‘E’.
China, who are seeking to qualify for the World Cup for only the second time, look to have a promising fixture against lower-ranked opponents including war-torn Syria, tiny Guam, Philippines and the Maldives in Group ‘A’.
The country and its 73rd-ranked team have grand ambitions to host and win a World Cup under football-fan President Xi Jinping.
Japan, who reached the last 16 in 2018, will take on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia in Group ‘F’.
The Korean derbies will be the first in World Cup qualifying for more than a decade. Then, the teams were grouped together in back-to-back rounds as both advanced to the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Both North Korea’s home games were played in Shanghai when then-leader Kim Jong Il’s government declined to play by FIFA protocol rules.
After the draw, South Korea coach Paulo Bento insisted that facing the North was “nothing special”.
“This is a sports question,” said Bento. “We are going to play two games against North Korea in the same way that we are going to play two games against the rest of the teams in the group and try to win all the games that we are going to play, respecting all the teams in the way that we have until now.”
Sporting ties played a role in a diplomatic thaw on and around the peninsula last year, when the two Koreas formed their first-ever unified Olympic team for the 2018 Winter Games.
But those endeavours stagnated with the wider deadlock in negotiations over the North’s nuclear arsenal.
South Korea have played in every World Cup since 1986 while the North Koreans have qualified twice, famously reaching the quarter-finals in 1966 before being eliminated in the group phase of the 2010 tournament.
The global 2022 qualifying programme features more than 800 games to decide 31 qualifiers joining Qatar began in Asia with preliminary games in June.
Asia is also the first continental body to begin setting its groups. Africa’s confederation will draw its first games next week and kick off in September.
European football body UEFA is scheduled to pick its format for deciding 13 qualifying places in September. The 55 European teams should begin World Cup qualifying groups in March 2021.
In the North American region CONCACAF, the United States and Mexico are set to be in a group of six top-ranked teams playing for three guaranteed places from September 2020.
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2019